To learn a language, you need to memorize a lot of vocabulary, and memorizing lots of vocabulary can be tricky. You’re faced with unfamiliar spellings and unfamiliar sounds, which makes foreign words significantly more difficult to remember than words in your native language. In this article, I’ll show you how to remember words more easily with the help of mnemonics.
Tips, tutorials and resources to aid you on your path towards fluency.
Alphabets (and syllabaries) are the first barrier of entry to any new language. If you want to learn a language like Russian, you’re basically paralyzed until you’re familiar with its letters. But even if you’re learning a language with familiar characters, like Italian, you’re going to feel uncomfortable and wobbly at first; those familiar characters aren’t particularly familiar in words like “zaino” (pronounced dzaino), “gli” (pronounced ʎi) or “cena” (pronounced tʃena).
I’ve always liked learning alphabets; while I don’t know more than 10 words of Hebrew, my seven years of Hebrew school did leave me with a decent ability to read the Hebrew alphabet. Yay. I had a similar experience in Russian back in high school. For me, alphabets seem to stick in my brain when nothing else will.
But if learning a new alphabet doesn’t sound like a fun way to spend your weekend, what can you do? This article is about one simple idea: How to learn the alphabet in any language quickly, and how to remember it for good.
I’m an Anki nut. In some sense, I owe three of my languages to Anki. One of my favorite things about Anki is its flexibility; you can make flashcards in any way you choose.
Once you’ve created and memorized a lot of flashcards (I recently passed 20,000 flashcards…geesh), you’ll start to notice that not all cards are created equal. Some flashcards are easy to remember, they teach you precisely what you want to learn, and they generally make you smile when you see them. Others make you want to throw your smartphone out the window. Good flashcards can make the difference between sticking with a language until fluency or giving up after a few months, so I’m making this guide to help others learn from some of my terrible, terrible flashcard-related mistakes.
I’ve been fielding questions about my methods for Hungarian and how they might work for a less phonetic language like French, with multiple ways of spelling a single sound. Today, I made a 44-card sample deck for French, which you’re welcome to download and use as a model here.
The sample deck includes 3 chunks:
- Minimal pair practice
- Spelling rules
- Basic picture words
Using the deck I made on Dec 21, it took me 9 days at <20 minutes/day to basically learn the sounds of Hungarian and the Hungarian alphabet. Total time spent: 4 hrs of deck creation, 2.5 hours of reviews over a 10 day period. This is working very well so far (and it’s a lot of fun!), and I’m ready to move to the next stage: concrete vocabulary.
A reader who was getting a pretty good vocabulary base asked me how to start developing a base in German grammar, and I took the opportunity to write out a pretty complete reply. The principles should apply to any grammar you’re learning (and if you don’t see how, please post a comment or email me so I can make sure that I’m not missing something). Enjoy!
I’ve been getting some really great questions via the contact form, and I thought some of the answers might be helpful for others, so I’m taking some of the questions and answers and putting them here! Today we’ll cover a few questions regarding grammar.
Q: How do you use Anki to work on grammar?
A: Most of the time, I use fill-in-the-blank style cards - the sort of stuff you’d see in any grammar workbook (in fact, I usually just copy a few examples from whatever grammar workbook I end up buying):
Front: Right now, he (to walk) to school. Back: Right now, he is walking to school.
Front: Right now, he is walking ___ school. Back: Right now, he is walking to school.
Q: What about verb conjugations? Do you do conjugation tables?
I keep addressing this question in various forum/comment discussions, but I should discuss it here, because it addresses a lot of issues in a lot of languages. The question is:
How do I deal with a language that uses a pictographic alphabet like Chinese?
Wow I’m pooped. Ok here’s what’s new:
• The video page has been completely redone; it’s a lot friendlier.
• The Tower of Babelfish Store is officially open, with its first product. (!) As a thanks for helping to test out the store and see if I set it up at all correctly, the first 5 people who use the discount code Test_My_Shop will get a 33.33% discount. [Update: Store doesn't like being in frames. I think I've found all the links that put it in frames and killed them - please let me know if you find one I missed! (thank you Mark)]
• The first product is an English Pronunciation Anki deck, which covers all of the International Phonetic Alphabet symbols that are found in the English language, as well as recordings for each sound. Here’s a note about the decision to sell Anki decks here. [demo link fixed - thanks David!]
• Contact form has been changed to a WordPress plugin
• All the social networking buttons now bookmark the individual pages they’re on, so if you click the Facebook share button on the Learn Italian page, it’ll share the Italian page to Facebook.
• Video tutorial for importing compressed decks with media files into Anki (like the English Pronunciation deck) has been added.
• CSSEdit is a magical thing! Wordpress portions of site now look like the rest of the site!
• Facebook like buttons e v e r y w h e r e
• Navigation menu replaced with something that should be a bit more browser/platform compatible
• Sidebar now works, as does search function.
If you find something broken, please let me know! I’ve changed at least 2 things on every page of the site and I imagine something got messed up.
That’s all! Cheers -Gabe